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Google changing operations following threats from Beijing

BEIJING — Google Inc. said today it will stop automatically rerouting users of its China search site to its Hong Kong site after Beijing threatened the company with the loss of its Internet license.

Google shut down its China-based search engine March 22 to avoid cooperating with the communist government’s Internet censorship and has rerouted users to its unfiltered site in Hong Kong. But Google said regulators told the company its Internet license, which expires tomorrow, would not be renewed if that continues.

“They made it clear to us that they did not think the redirect was acceptable,” said a Google spokeswoman, Jessica Powell. She declined to say what reasons the government gave for its objections.

Google still operates a music download service and several other features on Google.cn that are not affected by filtering regulations and Powell said it wants those services to continue.

Instead of automatically being switched to Hong Kong, visitors to Google.cn now see a tab that says in Chinese “We have moved to google.com.hk.” Users can click on that tab to move to the Chinese-language site in Hong Kong, which is a Chinese territory but has Western-style civil liberties with no Internet filtering.

There was no immediate word from Beijing about whether the measure was sufficient for Google to keep its Chinese Internet license.

“This new approach is consistent with our commitment not to self-censor and, we believe, with local law,” said Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, on a company blog.

“We are therefore hopeful that our license will be renewed on this basis so we can continue to offer our Chinese users services via Google.cn.”

Beijing encourages Internet use for business and education but operates an extensive monitoring system and tries to block access to pornography or subversive material. China has the largest population of Web users, with 384 million people online at the end of 2009, according to the government.

Google announced in January that it no longer wished to comply with Chinese Internet filtering and said hackers working from China tried to steal its code and break into e-mail accounts of human rights activists.

The statement was an embarrassment for China’s leaders, who want foreign companies to help develop its technology industries. People in the industry are watching to see whether Beijing allows Google to continue operating other businesses.

A foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said he had not seen Google’s announcement and could not comment on it. However, he added, “I would like to stress that the Chinese government encourages foreign enterprises to operate in China according to law.”

Google, based in Mountain View, California, hopes to keep a research center in China, an advertising sales team that generates most of its revenue in the country and a fledgling mobile phone business.

In a statement June 8, the government said the Internet played an “irreplaceable role in accelerating the development of the national economy.” But it vowed to keep a tight grip on online content and to block subversive material.

Regulators block websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to prevent dissidents and human rights or Tibet activists from using them to spread criticism of Beijing.

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